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Old space, new ideas

IMG_9270 (800x600)I didn’t think there could be much more that would surprise me about Swiss efficiency. Having a tram where you can leave your Christmas shopping as you shop some more and then come collect it on the way home is a stroke of genius. Having a tram that travels the city of Zurich and serves fondue as you sight see shifts time management into a whole new realm. But it’s not just the trams that are put to good use.

IMG_9339 (800x600) (2)There’s a part of town called IM VIADUKT … and not surprisingly, it’s an old viaduct originally built in 1894. But instead of leaving it to rack and ruin, to bury itself beneath a coating or five of graffiti or yards of trellised ivy, the Swiss have turned it into a serviceable work of art: serviceable because of the shops and restaurants and cafés that have established themselves underneath in the 36 arches; artistic because of the night lights that showcase its nooks and crannies, curves and corners. The architects faced a huge challenge – their task was to develop this monumental piece of architecture within the confines of a preservation order, and to do so affordably, given the Swiss penchant for bureaucracy and red tape. And while I’m not a student of the trade I know what I like – and I like this place … a lot.

IMG_9401 (800x600)IMG_9413 (800x600)I stayed with friends in an old industrial space by the river that by rights should be ugly – concrete and steel – but instead is funky and modern without being an eyesore. I spent quite a bit of time marveling at the juxtaposition of old and new in the city – the Swiss seemed to have accomplished in Zurich what so many other city planners have failed to do – a perfect marriage of old and new.

Yes, the sheer beauty of Budapest’s architecture remains unchallenged but Zurich has wedged its way into my heart.

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2013 Grateful 2

I live a life without issue, that is I have no children. I can’t ever remember wanting to have children but that said, I wouldn’t have objected had the good Lord seen fit to bless me with an offspring or two. But it wasn’t to be. As a child, I used to dream of fostering, of adopting – ever since I saw the documentary narrated by Henry Winkler: Who are the DeBolts and where did they get 19 kids?

I love my nephews. I have two. They regularly remind me that I cannot include patience amongst my many virtues. They amaze me with their logic, untarnished as it is by the shoulds and should nots they will inevitably adopt as their own. I am fascinated with other people’s kids and occasionally irritated by their poor behaviour. I find myself increasingly wondering when children started parenting the adults and when adults lost control.

There’s a saying that just about the time you start realising your parents were right, your kids start telling you you’re wrong. My parents were strict and I promised myself that I’d be a lot more lenient with my kids, were I to have any. But I know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I’d have been even stricter. Perhaps its just as well my maternal gene is in abeyance.

That said though, Christmas is a kid’s holiday. It saddens me that it’s become less and less about Christ’s birthday, and more and more about Santa Claus… and getting stuff. It upsets me that big ticket items like iPads and sound systems have replaced the dolls and teddy bears of old. I’m lucky. I have practically everything I need and get a far greater kick out of giving than receiving. It’s the opening of the present that I like – once it’s opened, I’m not beyond rewrapping it and giving it to someone else, thus multiplying the pleasure. Want vs need – that’s what it all boils down to. Give me the stuff memories are made of any day over something I have to find a home for.

IMG_9306 (800x600) (800x600)But I digress. Back to kids. My mates in Zurich sold me on the trip when they told me about the singing Christmas tree. I couldn’t quite imagine what they were talking about and just had to go see in person. I challenge the most hardened Bah! Humbug! to do the same and then tell me that they still don’t like Christmas.

Just a few steps from Bahnhofstrasse, tucked away in a little Christmas market, with plenty of glühwein choirs take to the tree at 17.30 and 18.30 every weekday evening from late November. Initially hidden from the crowds, they suddenly pop out and start singing. Gobsmackingly cute.

The concept came from Bellhaven University in the USA where, in 1933, the first living tree was conceived. Since then, it has spread across the world to Canada, the Philippines, Switzerland, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. Back in 2007, the one at Knoxville, Tennessee, attracted 60 000 people to one event. They range in size from 18 to 48 feet (5.5 to 15 m) and can hold anything from 30 to 450 singers. What a simple, yet spectacular idea.

Amidst the fuss and frolics this Christmas, I’m reminded to take the time to be grateful to children – for their insight, their incisive humour, and their uncensored views of the world.

As the late John F Kennedy was fond of saying: Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.

My favourite piece of advice for kids comes from American poet Shel Silverstein:

Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

There’s a lesson there for all of us.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

Biggest, brightest, best

I’m quite partial to  the concept of Christmas markets. I like wandering around, wrapped against the elements, clutching my steaming mug of hot wine and checking to see what the artisans have been up to. Visiting other cities in December, these markets are a must and are inevitably compared to what’s on offer in Budapest at the Basilica or Vörösmarty tér. Vienna was disappointing – oh, it looks fantastic, but take away the soap and the cheese and what you’re left with is  bunch of tat. Zurich was different.

IMG_9132 (800x600)IMG_9140 (800x600)The main train train houses Europe’s biggest indoor market. More than 160 wooden chalets offer everything from sweets to candles to sculptures to jewelry to carvings to hides. The emphasis is definitely on craftsmanship.  And what a novel location – perfect for those with an hour to spare between trains, consoling for those who have missed their train, and warm enough for those feeling the cold.

IMG_9131 (600x800)The centrepiece is the Swarovski Christmas Tree with its 7000 sparkling crystals. A magnificent piece of work that boggles the mind. There are 14 of them dotted around the world from Argentina to Venezuela (with two in China), each one brighter than the next.

I was given a piece of Swarovski for my birthday, and having gotten over the extravagance, have to admit to being rather attached to it. Years ago, in Hawaii, my mate Lori bought me a pair of crocs – sandals – and had them add some Swarovski crystals. That I thought a little ostentatious, but I got over that, too. It all makes me wonder at who I might have been in a past life.

IMG_9139 (800x600)And the markets don’t stop in the station. In side streets off the Banhoffstrasse, many more sit in wait for passersby. The food on offer isn’t the usual Hungarian meats swimming in vats of oil (which, by the way, I love); it’s a little more sophisticated. Smoked meats, cheeses, fondue, and raclette vie for attention. Loathe though I am to stereotype, the Swiss certainly love their cheese.

IMG_9114 (800x600)IMG_9160 (600x800)As you might expect, everything is neat and orderly. I was quite surprised at the carelessness with which smokers throw their butts on the street, but then I was reminded of the nation’s efficiency – it would all be clean again in a matter of hours.

If you’ve a mind to get away from it all before the holidays, you could do a lot worse than visiting Zurich. I have a sneaking suspicion that I might well be back again, next year. And this time, I might actually buy one of Bettina Eberle’s glass owls.

A change of heart

The last time I was in Zurich, some random individual (male) got on the tram and started whaling on me with a rolled-up magazine. It hurt. Okay, so I had been staring mindlessly out the window and he got caught in my crosshairs. I hadn’t actually been looking at him – it was more like he got in the way of my stare.

Anyway, he took offence, came aboard, and started on me. Rolled-up magazines are formidable weapons. They hurt. But what hurt most was that I was in law-abiding Switzerland and no one came to my aid. Whatever invectives he was shouting act me must have given our general audience cause to believe that we were embroiled in some sort of domestic dispute, so they kept their distance. In fact, they did more: they got up and moved away. He calmed down and sat down, and I stayed seated, rooted to the spot, hoping he’d get off at the next stop because I wasn’t capable of thinking enough to safely put one foot in front of the other. But he didn’t. When he stood, it was to turn on me … again.

Fast forward 20 years and I find myself with an invite from good friends to visit them in Zurich. Understandably, I have no great love for the city. What sights there were back then had been swallowed whole by the memory of Mr Magazine. But it wasn’t Zurich I was going to see.

My mother is fond of reminding me of the beatitude – blessed is she who expects nothing for she shall never be disappointed – and I can add to that now… expect nothing and you might even be pleasantly surprised.

IMG_9276 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_9333 (590x800)Zurich at Christmas is delightful. The Bahnhofstrasse is lit up by  lights they have named ‘Lucy’. Strings of lights are suspended across the street creating an illusions of falling stars. It’s amazing. So simple and yet the effect is one that makes you stop, repeatedly, and wonder. Shop windows epitomise a style that is uniquely Swiss: a little sharper than neighbouring France and a lot less harsh than bordering Germany. The sales boasted hefty discounts, but even with 70% off, the prices were still just that little bit out of reach. Zurich is many things – but it ain’t cheap.

Nicely mellowed by the gluwein and wrapped against the elements, I rediscovered the art of rediscovering. I had a change of heart. Yer man’s face, with the three vertical cuts on his forehead, is a vision that has been superimposed by one of magic and wonder.